Now that the Jazz have weathered the toughest stretch of their season, they can turn their sights toward a playoff run. But as was the case last year, it could go down to the final day before deciding which team will be the Jazz's first-round opponent.

Whatever happens, pairings aren't as important as momentum, says Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan. "Going into the playoffs, you've just got to try to be on top of your game and be playing well," said Sloan. "To me, momentum going into the playoffs is the biggest thing."This year the Western Conference races are easily the most intriguing. Once considered an also-ran, Houston has won eight straight games and stands only two games out of first place in the Midwest, behind the Jazz and San Antonio. In the Pacific, Portland continues to fade and now leads the Lakers by only a half-game. Considering the tightness of the races, every game could have long-lasting ramifications.

"We've passed the time when you talk about important games," said Jazz assistant Gordon Chiesa. "Now every game is important for everyone."

Were the season to end today, the Jazz - currently in first place - would finish as the No. 2 team in the West and end up playing Golden State (with the home court advantage) in the first round. But it remains such a tight race that finishing first or second in the division could mean the difference between being the No. 2 and No. 5 seeded team. If the Jazz finished second, it would be a much tougher order - probably Phoenix, with the Suns holding the home court advantage.

Sloan, takes a typically no-nonsense

approach to the playoff possibilities. "I can't worry about who we get in the playoffs. Just like you can't worry about injuries. That's just the way it is. I'm just worrying about keeping my team playing as well as it can play."

Of the three contenders in the Midwest, the Jazz have the best remaining schedule. Utah has 10 home games and eight on the road. Of the remaining 18 games, 12 are against lottery-bound teams. Of San Antonio's remaining 19 games, 10 are at home and nine games are against lottery candidates. Houston has just seven home games remaining on its 18-game schedule and only eight against lottery teams.

Despite the favorable schedule, Sloan refuses to take solace. "They all add up, whoever you play," he said. "They don't put an asterisk by any one of the games and say why you lost or if it was a big game or not. It's just wins and losses."

JAZZ NOTES: Forward Karl Malone left Monday's practice to have a sore hand X-rayed. Early indications were that the injury wasn't serious. . .TheJazz are 42-22 and must win 13 of their remaining 18 games to tie their franchise-high 55-win record of last year. . . Utah is four games behind last year's pace, but last season they ended up losing three of their last four and four of their final six. . .Utah continues its season with a road game at Denver on Wednesday.

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(Additional information)

Remaining schedules

UTAH at Denver

Charlotte

Minnesota

Milwaukee

at L.A. Clippers

at Sacramento

at Phoenix

L.A. Clippers

at Dallas

at Houston

Orlando

Dallas

at L.A. Lakers

Denver

Sacramento

Seattle

L.A. Lakers

at Golden State

HOUSTON at Minnesota

Sacramento

New York

at Chicago

at Atlanta

at Orlando

at Miami

Dallas

at Denver

Utah

Portland

at Golden State

at Sacramento

at Seattle

at Portland

San Antonio

at Dallas

Denver

SAN ANTONIO

Sacramento

at Orlando

at Miami

Detroit

New York

Orlando

Denver

L.A. Lakers

at Milwaukee

at Chicago

at Minnesota

Golden State

Portland

at Seattle

at Phoenix

L.A. Clippers

at Houston

at Denver

Dallas

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If the Playoffs were today, these would be the rankings in the West

1. Portland

2. Utah

3. L.A. Lakers

4. Phoenix

5. San Antonio

6. Houston

7. Golden State

8. Seattle

The playoff pairings for the first round are teams 1-8, 2-7, 3-6 and 4-5 in each conference. ~